ALC · Contemporary Literature

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm

This title/cover combination is one of the most soothing, and thematically inter-supportive. Together they just give vibes of music and physical intimacy that are, in fact, the cornerstones of this novel. Shoutout to for the ALC, which both helped me move through this (very) character-centered work, as well as added to the rhythm and sensuousness of the book, with the gorgeous lilt of the narrator’s voice.   

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm by Laura Warrell

“Why jazz? […] It’s new every time […] You got the notes and arrangements, yeah, but once you start playing, something different happens. You don’t know what’s gonna come. That’s what it is about jazz. Everything else about living stops surprising you at some point, right?”

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm centers on Circus Palmer, a jazz trumpet player and ladies man who is holding on to his musical prowess, womanizing, and hopes for a “big break” even as he stares down his mid-forties. When the one woman he seems to always comes back to tells him she’s pregnant, it creates a chain of interactions and realizations that are perhaps prescient of Circus’ becoming more settled in his upcoming years. As the man Circus is comes into full development through both his own narration and internal consciousness, as well as the perspectives of the women whose lives he weaves in and out of, we learn a bit about each of those lives in turn, with special focus on his first daughter, Koko, who is coming into her own both as a woman and in her sexuality. 

This book was definitely written as one of those that is supposed to slowly seep into your bones. It is very much not a plot-driven novel, but rather an exploration of concepts, of love and longing and jazz and the attendant culture. And while there is a kind of quiet power to the representation of different kinds of each that are detailed, I felt more lulled than compelled by the voices and the rhythm, so that while I appreciated the novel, I do not think there is much of it that will stick with me as long as I’d normally expect such a tightly character-biased telling to endure. That being said, the writing was very good. It meandered and the novel was perhaps a bit too long overall, but it was lovely writing. The audiobook was a great option for moving through in a way that allowed me to appreciate the word without getting bogged/stalled by the length versus lack of “action.” The way these sort of vignette-style chapters were all brought together in the end, whether actually or just in impact, was nicely handled. One *for real* literary highlight for me was the communicating back and forth between two women sleeping with the same man through the marks they leave on his body: incredible and unique. And the ending…it left me with that “deep sigh of contentment” and “the promise of fresh beginnings” kind of feeling, in a way that fit the story and storytelling exactly right.

There were some reasonably compelling characters. I do always love an unlikable and frustrating, but complexly nuanced, character sketch…and Circus was all that. Koko too was a great multi-faceted coming of age character, with all the obsessions and nerves and foibles of youth, but the sweetness and naivete and yearning for recognition, that together make you want to roll your eyes *and* tug on your heartstrings…if that isn’t perfectly encapsulated adolescence, I don’t know what is. And as one of the central relationships of the novel, once it builds to a point that we are ready for it, as readers, Circus and Koko really shine in the spotlight. 

The themes of this novel are, for me, the real strength. Warrell’s ability to portray the myriad ways that unavailable and unrequited love are lived and experienced, and how different people handle them, is profound. Circus is the prime example, though not the only one, of someone “never able to settle,” who flits and flirts and sleeps around, and has that irresistible magnetism that pulls people in even if they can’t ever provide what the other person needs. Perhaps that is not their fault, especially if they are up front about not being able to fulfill fantasies of settled life and long term relationships. And yet, should not the burden of the empty spaces those people leave behind fall to them at least in part? Because there is no way to flit and flirt through so many people’s lives without understanding and acknowledging the pain and loss they have the potential to leave in their wake. Where should that line of fault, of responsibility, be drawn? There is also a dive into the needs of some to have that strife and (emotional) distance and impatience and tension in a relationship, when love can only be felt through/within spaces of desperation and when generosity creates only a sense of entrapment. There are so many ways that a person can be unavailable, so many ways space can be either necessary or a breaking point, so many ways that people take advantage of each other and pretend not to notice. 

This is a novel of the empty spaces and filled spaces of affairs. It was threaded through with a deep seated heaviness, the way that one feels when reality becomes a weight that is borderline too much to bear. Warrell speaks to “the strange comfort that came with relentless disappointment,” because the unknown is so terrifying that even the crushing reality of emotions/interactions unrequited is at least safe is its recognizability. If you want a *vibes* style read, this one has got you covered. 

Since I mentioned the writing a few times, enjoy some of these examples of it:

“He needed a home, so I made it. That’s what you do when you’re in love. No one likes to admit it, but that’s what we do. Clear the ground so the person we want plants himself there, so we always have whatever it is we love about him. So it stays with us.”

“Why would loving me be so bad? what does love take from you?”

“She wished she was a different kind of woman then, the kind of woman who could relax like he wanted her to, the kind of woman who didn’t need so much, the kind of woman love didn’t make smaller.”

“The horn has been the only thing that doesn’t change. The notes are always right where I expect them to be. The things I say to my trumpet, I can’t say to anyone else, and it’s always said things I can’t say. I become part of it, you know, put my breath right into it. That’s my soul. Maybe I needed a safe place to put that breath. And I tell you, I haven’t found a safer place than the inside of a horn.”

“Why don’t grown-ups like being happy?”

“…you never think yourself responsible for the feelings you stir in people.”

2 thoughts on “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm

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